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(EDITORIAL from Korea Herald on May 21)

Editorials from Korean dailies 07:02 May 21, 2021

Absurd administration
Institute builds Sejong office it should not; employees benefit from special program

The Customs Valuation & Classification Institute, affiliated with the Korea Customs Service, reportedly constructed a new office building in Sejong even though it was not set to relocate there, and its moving plans fell through belatedly.

The building was completed at a cost of 17.1 billion won ($15.1 million), but it has been vacant for about a year.

Along the way, some of the institute's employees bought new apartments in the city through a government program to supply housing on preferential terms to officials serving at agencies that moved there.

The special program aims at incentivizing public officials to move to Sejong, but among them it is seen as a profitable investment. A certain number of new apartments are set aside for them to purchase for cheap, compared with the going prices in that area.

The execution of the relocation and the program is absurd and deplorable.

In 2005, the Ministry of Interior and Safety published a government notice of its "plan to relocate central administrative agencies to Sejong." Four agencies, including the customs service and the institute, both located in Daejeon, were specified in the notice as "agencies excluded from relocation."

Nevertheless, work on the institute's new office building began in October 2015.

The Korea Customs Service also consulted the National Agency for Administrative City Construction over the new office project. The Ministry of Economy and Finance assigned funds from its budget for the project in 2016.

Both the service and the institute say they did not know that the Interior and Safety Ministry had published the notice. It is hard to understand how they could fail to take the basic step of checking that essential notice when they were pushing to build a new office building for as much as 17.1 billion won. All government notices are published in an official gazette, and any information there can be accessed easily.

In 2018, the National Agency for Administrative City Construction belatedly found out that the institute was not one of the agencies that should move to Sejong, and it notified the Interior and Safety Ministry and the institute. But the new office building was already about half complete.

The customs service kept on with the construction regardless, citing the progress of the work. It even consulted a law firm for legal advice and attempted to "revise the notice."

The Interior and Safety Ministry refused to revise the notice. Construction was completed in May last year, but the customs service gave up on moving the institute there and returned the building to the Ministry of Economy and Finance in November.

In the meantime -- from May 2017 to July 2019 -- 49 of the institute's 82 employees bought new Sejong apartments through the special supply program. The purchase prices ranged from 200 million won to 400 million won, and their current going prices are said to be from 700 million won to 1.4 billion won. They can realize considerable margins.

After all, the institute failed to move to Sejong, but more than half of its employees benefited from the program for relocating agencies.

The bigger loophole that remains is that they are allowed to keep the specially supplied Sejong apartments even though the move fell through. Technically, there is no regulation that stipulates the return of the apartments.

The customs service, the institute, the National Agency for Administrative City Construction, and the Finance and Interior ministries all made excuses: "We did not know," "We thought they had followed proper procedures," or "We were not notified."

If any one of them had checked carefully, this ridiculous thing might not have happened.

According to the office of Rep. Kwon Young-se of the opposition People Power Party, who revealed the incident, employees of the Saemangeum Development and Investment Agency and the Korea Coast Guard also took advantage of the special apartment supply program.

The Saemangeum Development and Investment Agency moved from Sejong to Gunsan, North Jeolla Province, in April 2018, and 46 employees of the agency bought new apartments through the program while it was in Sejong from 2013 to 2018. They are said to still be in possession of the apartments even after the relocation to Gunsan.

The Korea Coast Guard moved to Sejong in 2016 and returned to Incheon two years later. In the meantime, 165 employees purchased new apartments the same way.

The incident involving the institute may be the tip of the iceberg. If the government's relocation project and the special apartment supply program are scrutinized closely, a kaleidoscope of this mysterious world may come into view.

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